Think back to the worst thing you did in high school. Shoplifting? Busted with a joint? Trespassing, all lit up on Boone's Farm? Now, imagine you pulled your rite-of-passage nogoodnik routine in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in the early 2000s. You get busted, the cops get involved, you get hauled to the courthouse, some county employee presses on you a form waiving your right to an attorney—you sign it because you're not a criminal, and anyway, it's just part of the routine.
The judge, a little man, looms from his bench. “Were you at that assembly where I promised I'd put away kids who broke the law?” he asks.
You were. Everyone was. He gave that same speech at every school in Luzerne County each year.
The judge shuffles some papers, talks for a minute or maybe, in a complex case, 90 seconds, and then you're clapped in shackles, dragged away from your family, sentenced to three or six or nine months in that new hard-ass, for-profit juvenile-detention center that—yes, seriously—that judge has a financial stake in.
The fairytale fear of a powerful man stealing children is the infuriating heart of Kids for Cash, a compelling and well-reported documentary look at how Luzerne County teenagers wound up serving bona-fide cell time for crimes such as slapping a classmate, buying a scooter that turned out to have been stolen, or launching a fake MySpace page lampooning the assistant principal.
Director Robert May gives time to kids and parents who suffered the most outlandish of the incarcerations, and they're persuasive in arguing that the scare-'em-straight sentencing of Judge Mark Ciavarella has not, as the judge insists, made his detainees better people. One boy says the first time he got high was in lockup; another silver-bullets any debate with this: “You don't put a 12-year-old in there with criminals and expect him to come out saying, 'I'm going to be an outstanding citizen.' He comes out knowing how to make explosives.” The most wrenching testimony comes from Sandy Fonzo, the mother of a teenager who fled the state to avoid being sent up on his second minor offense and eventually took his own life. She descends upon Ciavarella on the courthouse steps like a Fury: “Do you remember me?” she screams. “Do you remember my son, an all-star wrestler? He shot himself in the heart, you scumbag!”
After sentencing more than 3,000 minors, Ciavarella eventually stood trial himself, for racketeering, tax fraud and allegedly accepting more than $2 million in kickbacks from the prison-industrial complex. Convicted of some of that, Ciavarella now faces his own hard-ass sentence: 28 years. Before getting slapped into his own shackles, the judge sat down with the filmmakers to defend himself, but he only proves contemptible. He always had the good of the children at heart, he claims. He insists he only failed to disclose that he had received millions from the detention center's builder and co-owner because he knew that might give the people the wrong idea. He sent loads of kids up the river before that hellish jail was even built in the first place, he reminds us, so why in the world would anyone ever think he had done something truly worth punishing? And aren't schools better with fewer troublemakers, especially after Columbine?
The documentary is stellar, despite some vague visual-metaphor stuff involving dioramas in an attic. Bring something you can punch, as you will be furious. The question never asked: Why are there for-profit detention centers in the first place?